While disappointed with the outcome of Game 5 against the Nashville Predators on Thursday night, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville is thinking like a jockey who knows he’s got a lot of horse left.
“One thing about our team — the deeper in the series, the more meaningful the games, they rise to the challenge and the occasion,” Quenneville said, referring to the chance to clinch the first-round series at home in Game 6 on Saturday night at the United Center.
The Hawks played like they had a game in hand in Game 5, when the Predators broke a 1-1 tie with three goals in the first 3:14 of the third period against Scott Darling en route to a 5-2 victory that cut the Hawks’ series lead to 3-2.
Now it’s the Hawks — with Darling again in goal — who figure to feel the sense of urgency to get the job done at home and avoid a Game 7 at Bridgestone Arena on Monday in Nashville. While the Hawks have a tendency for playing with fire in the playoffs, they’ve been effective at avoiding Game 7s. In the Quenneville era, the Hawks are 8-0 with a chance to clinch in Game 6, including 2-0 at the United Center.
“[The Predators] rose to the occasion in the third period [in Game 5], played accordingly, and we need to have that same fighting attitude [in Game 6],” Quenneville said. “Our group loves challenges and we’ve faced all kinds of adversity along the way, good and bad in playoff rounds. So we’re accustomed to whatever challenge faces us [in Game 6]. Let’s get excited about being at home, take advantage of the fans, the noise and put it to good use.”
As expected, Quenneville will stick with Darling in goal after the rookie from Lemont allowed four goals on 28 shots in Game 5. As is usually the case with Hawks goaltenders in the playoffs, Quenneville expects his team to play better in front of Darling.
“He’s played very well in this series,” Quenneville said. “The four games he’s been in, he’s been solid. Very happy with the way he’s played.”
Though the Hawks lead the series, the Predators arguably have outplayed them overall — especially considering they’ve been without all-star defenseman Shea Weber since the second period of Game 2. The Predators have outscored the Hawks 18-13 in the series. They’ve been in every game. The Hawks lost decisively in the third period in Games 2 and 5.
With the crapshoot nature of the Stanley Cup playoffs in general, the Hawks might be tempting fate to rely on their resolve to make the difference when a bounce of the puck can mean disaster.
“We understand the situation we’re in,” forward Kris Versteeg said. “We don’t really think too much about the hockey gods. I think it comes down to the way you play, tactics and how you execute. We have a veteran group, guys who have all done it before. It does take luck to win the Stanley Cup and win [playoff] series. But I think we’ve got the guys to do it.”
For the record, road teams were 6-1 in Game 7s in last year’s playoffs. But that’s not a chance the Hawks want to take.
“We have a great opportunity here,” defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson said. “Home ice and everyone’s excited to get back to the United Center and have a big chance to close this series out and that’s what we’re planning to do.
“We don’t want to go back to Nashville. [Saturday] is the day for us to have a really solid 60 minutes and try to end the series. We know Nashville’s going to bring everything they have. They obviously did [in Game 5] and we weren’t too happy with the way we played. Hopefully we can bring 60 solid minutes and get a big win.”